Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Arabic Calligraphy

Arabic calligraphy is one of the most highly regarded arts forms in the Islamic world, because it is the language of the Qur'an, the sacred book of Islam. Muslims believe it was dictated to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel between 610-632 A.D. Since then, Arabic calligraphy has become a highly developed art form due to the prohibition of images within most branches of Islam.

Arabic is used for writing everything from secular to sacred texts. Among sacred texts, the Qur'an itself and/or passages from it are widely depicted. These calligraphic illustrations have taken on many forms over the centuries, and are still produced today by skilled calligraphers (fore example, Hassan Massoudy and Wissam Shawkat). The illustrations can range from traditional to more contemporary images (see for example the logo for Al Jazeera). 

One class of imagery is called the calligram. It's calligraphy that has been written to resemble an object by forming the strokes of the letters and words of a passage into a familiar shape. Apparently, however, this form isn't considered “high art” by most calligraphers, though it is popular with many Muslims.

Arabic calligraphy is also used as an architectural embellishment on the inner and outer walls of mosques. Again, most of the sources for texts are from the Qur'an, or other traditional writings about the prophet Muhammad. One interesting aspect of its use as an architectural element is cited in a Wikipedia article:

There is a beautiful harmony between the inscriptions and the functions of the mosque. Specific surahs (chapters) or ayats (verses) from Koran are inscribed in accordance with functions of specific architectural elements. For example, on the domes you can find the Noor ayat (the divine stress on light) written, above the main entrance you find verses related to the entrances of the paradise, on the windows the divine names of Allah are inscribed so that reflection of the sun rays through those windows remind the believer that Allah manifests Himself upon the universe in all high qualities.

Regarding church architecture and Arabic calligraphy, this church in Morocco is very interesting: the Church of St. Andrew in Tangier, Morocco. It was designed by a Moroccan architect and built in 1894. Apparently inside surrounding the chancel is an arch carved in stucco by artisans from Fes (who also created the wooden ceiling inside the chancel). If you look closely, you can see surrounding the arch is the Lord's Prayer in Arabic.

Arabic has also been used by Christians and Jews over the centuries as well. Here we have an example of a Gospel (the last image of six) published in Damascus in 1342. Note the similarity to an example of a hand written Qur'an. In more recent times, various biblical verses have been produced, in keeping with the same style as that of Qur'anic verses.  This one is of the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:9–13).

I think that the best way to use Arabic for glorifying Christ would be to “glorify” the calligraphy itself by becoming so adept at it that shows a true love and mastery of the art form. Then you would have a platform to express deeper truths about God and Christ through the medium, while showing a great respect for the culture and people it comes from.


  1. BTW, there's an Arabic Calligraphy exhibit at Emory U. in Atlanta through 12/5/10, more info at: http://www.carlos.emory.edu/Islamic-calligraphy

  2. Hi Scott! What a great blog...I work for a publishing company that is thinking of using that Lord's prayer calligraphy image for a book cover. I found your page while looking for who might hold the copyright. Do you have any idea? Suzanne

  3. Suzanne- The image is on the front cover of a book called "Christians in Oman." The link to the page where the original image is found is http://andyinoman.com/2010/08/25/christians-in-oman-the-book/.

    Here is a link to a used copy with isbn and publisher name: http://www.biblio.com/details.php?dcx=438091443&aid=bkfndr

    I hope this helps!

  4. ////I think that the best way to use Arabic for glorifying Christ would be to “glorify” the calligraphy itself////


    1. Lola- Perhaps I should've used a different word in referring to calligraphy. I certainly didn't mean it in the sense of worship/idolatry, but in terms of honoring the beauty of the art form which thereby honors the people of that culture and expresses Christ's love for them. By loving people as Christ loved us we gain the right to point them to Christ Himself. That's what I was trying to express. I hope this clarifies.